Dickens—Smiles and Tears
C HARLES DICKENS was a novelist who lived and wrote at the same time as Thackeray. He was indeed only six months younger, but he began to make a name much earlier and was known to fame while Thackeray was still a struggling artist. When they both became famous these two great writers were to some extent rivals, and those who read their books were divided into two camps. For though both are men of genius, they are men of widely differing genius.
John Dickens, the father, was a clerk with a small salary in the Navy Pay Office, and his son Charles was born in 1812 at Portsea. When Charles was about four his father was moved to Chatham, and here the little boy Charles lived until he was nine. He was a very puny little boy, and not able to join in the games of the other boys of his own age. So he spent most of his time in a small room where there were some books and where no one else besides himself cared to go. He not only read the books, but lived them, and for weeks together he would make believe to himself that he was his favorite character in whatever book he might be reading. All his life he loved acting a part and being somebody else, and at one time thought of becoming an actor.
Then when Charles was seven he went to a school taught by a young
Baptist minister. It was not an
unhappy life for the "Very queer
small boy" as he calls himself. There were fields in which he
could play his pretending games, and there was a beautiful house
When the very queer small boy was nine he and all his family moved to London. Here they lived in a mean little house in a mean little street. There were now six children, and the father had grown very poor, so instead of being sent to school Charles used to black the boots and make himself useful about the house. But he still had his books to read, and could still make believe to himself. Things grew worse and worse however, and John Dickens, who was kind and careless, got into debt deeper and deeper. Everything in the house that could be done without was sold, and one by one the precious books went. At length one day men came and took the father away to prison because he could not pay his debts.
Then began for Charles the most miserable time of his life. The poor, sickly little chap was set to work in a blacking factory. His work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking, tie them down neatly and paste on the labels. Along with two or three others boys he worked all day long for six or seven shillings a week. Oh, how the little boy hated it! He felt degraded and ashamed. He felt that he was forgotten and neglected by every one, and that never never more would he be able to read books and play pretending games, or do anything that he loved. All week he worked hard, ill clad and only half fed, and Sunday he spent with his father at the prison. It was a miserable, sordid, and pitiful beginning to life.
How long this unhappy time lasted we do not know. Dickens himself could not remember. He seldom spoke of this time, but he never forgot the misery of it. Long afterwards in one of his books called David Copperfield, when he tells of the unhappy childhood of his hero, it is of his own he speaks.
But presently John Dickens got out of prison, Charles left the blacking factory, and once more went to school. And although in after years he could never bear to think of these miserable days, at the time his spirits were not crushed, and at school he was known as a bright and jolly boy. He was always ready for any mischief, and took delight in getting up theatricals.
At fifteen Dickens left school and went into a lawyer's office, but he knew that he had learned very little at school, and now set himself to learn more. He went to the British Museum Reading-room, and studied there, and he also with a great deal of labor taught himself shorthand.
He worked hard, determined to get on, and at nineteen he found
himself in the Gallery of the House of Commons as reporter for a
daily paper. Since the days when Samuel Johnson reported
speeches without having heard them things had changed. People
were no longer content with such
Besides reporting in the Houses of Parliament Dickens dashed
about the country in
But even while Dickens was leading this hurried, busy life he found time to write other things besides newspaper reports, and little tales and sketches began to appear signed by Boz. Boz was a pet name for Dickens's youngest brother. His real name was Augustus, but he had been nicknamed Moses after Moses in the Vicar of Wakefield. Pronounced through the nose it became Boses and then Boz. That is the history of the name under which Dickens at first wrote and won his earliest fame.
The sketches by Boz were well received, but real fame came to
Dickens with the Pickwick Papers which he now began to write.
This story came out in monthly parts. The first few numbers were
not very successful, only about four hundred copies being sold,
but by the fifteenth number London was ringing with the fame of
it, and forty thousand copies were quickly sold. "Judges on the
bench and boys in the street, gravity and folly, the young and
the old" all alike read it and laughed over it. Dickens above
everything is a humorist, and one of the chief features in his
humor is caricature, that is exaggerating and distorting one
feature or habit or characteristic of a man out of all likeness
to nature. This often makes very good fun, but it takes away
from the truth and realness of his characters. And yet no
So in spite of the fact that they are all caricatures it is the persons of the Pickwick club that we remember and not their doings. Like Jonson long before him, Dickens sees every man in his humor. By his genius he enables us to see these humors too, though at times one quality in a man is shown so strongly that we fail to see any other in him, and so a caricature is produced.
Dickens himself was full of fun and jollity. His was a florid personality. He loved light and color, and sunshine. He almost covered his walls with looking-glasses and crowded his garden with blazing geraniums. He loved movement and life, overflowed with it himself and poured it into his creations, making them live in spite of rather than because of their absurdities.
Winkle, one of the Pickwickians, is a mild and foolish boaster,
who pretends that he can do things he cannot. He pretends to be
able to shoot and succeeds only in hitting one of his friends.
He pretends to skate, and this is how he
" 'Now,' said Wardle, after a substantial lunch had been done ample justice to, 'what say you to an hour on the ice? We shall have plenty of time.'
" 'Capital!' said Mr. Benjamin Allen.
" 'Prime!' ejaculated Mr. Bob Sawyer.
" 'You skate of course, Winkle?' said Wardle.
" 'Oh, it is so graceful,' said another young lady. A third young lady said it was elegant, and a fourth expressed her opinion that it was 'swanlike.'
" 'I should be very happy, I'm sure,' said Mr. Winkle, reddening, 'but I have no skates.'
"This objection was at once overruled. Trundle had a couple of
pair, and the fat boy announced that there were
"Old Wardle led the way to a pretty large sheet of ice, and the
fat boy and
"All this time Mr. Winkle, with his face and hands blue with the cold, had been forcing a gimlet into the soles of his boots, and putting his skates on, with the points behind, and getting the straps into a very complicated and entangled state, with the assistance of Mr. Snodgrass, who knew rather less about skates than a Hindoo. At length, however, with the assistance of Mr. Weller, the unfortunate skates were firmly screwed and buckled on, and Mr. Winkle was raised to his feet.
" 'Now, then, Sir,' said Sam, in an encouraging tone; 'off with you, and shoe 'em how to do it.'
" 'Stop, Sam, stop!' said Mr. Winkle, trembling violently and clutching hold of Sam's arms with the grasp of a drowning man. 'How slippery it is, Sam!'
" 'Not a uncommon thing upon ice, Sir,' replied Mr. Weller. 'Hold up, Sir!'
"This last observation of Mr. Weller's bore reference to a demonstration Mr. Winkle made at the instant, of a frantic desire to throw his feet in the air, and dash the back of his head on the ice.
" 'These—these—are very awkward skates; ain't they, Sam?' inquired Mr. Winkle, staggering.
" 'I'm afeerd there's an orkard gen'l'm'n in 'em, Sir,' replied Sam.
" 'Now, Winkle,' cried Mr. Pickwick, quite unconscious that here was anything the matter. 'Come, the ladies are all anxiety.'
" 'Yes, yes,' replied Mr. Winkle, with a ghastly smile. 'I'm coming.'
" 'Just a-goin' to begin,' said Sam, endeavouring to disengage himself. 'Now, Sir, start off!'
" 'Stop an instant, Sam,' gasped
" 'Thank'ee, Sir,' replied Mr. Weller.
" 'Never mind touching your hat, Sam,' said Mr. Winkle, hastily. 'You needn't take your hand away to do that. I meant to have given you five shillings this morning for a Christmas-box, Sam. I'll give it you this afternoon, Sam.'
" 'You're wery good, Sir,' replied
" 'Just hold me at first, Sam; will you?' said
"Mr. Winkle, stooping forward with his body half doubled up, was
being assisted over the ice by
" 'Sir?' said Mr. Weller.
" 'Here, I want you.'
" 'Let go, Sir,' said Sam. 'Don't you hear the governor
"With a violent effort Mr. Weller disengaged himself from the
grasp of the agonised Pickwickian; and, in so
a considerable impetus to the unhappy
"Mr. Pickwick ran to the spot. Bob Sawyer had risen to his feet, but Mr. Winkle was far too wise to do anything of the kind, in skates. He was seated on the ice, making spasmodic efforts to smile, but anguish was depicted on every lineament of his countenance.
" 'Are you hurt?' inquired Mr. Benjamin Allen, with great anxiety.
" 'Not much,' said Mr. Winkle, rubbing his back very hard.
" 'I wish you'd let me bleed you,' said Mr. Benjamin, with great eagerness.
" 'No, thank you,' replied Mr. Winkle hurriedly.
" 'What do you think, Mr. Pickwick?' enquired Bob Sawyer.
"Mr. Pickwick was excited and indignant. He beckoned to
" 'No; but really I had scarcely begun,' remonstrated
" 'Take his skates off,' repeated Mr. Pickwick firmly.
"The command was not to be resisted. Mr. Winkle allowed Sam to obey it, in silence.
" 'Lift him up,' said Mr. Pickwick. Sam assisted him to rise.
"Mr. Pickwick retired a few paces apart from the bystanders; and
beckoning his friend to approach, fixed a searching look upon
him, and uttering in a low,
but distinct and emphatic tone, these
" 'You're a humbug, Sir.'
" 'A what!' said Mr. Winkle starting.
" 'A humbug, Sir. I will speak plainer, if you wish it. An impostor, Sir.'
"With these words Mr. Pickwick turned slowly on his heel, and rejoined his friends."
There is much life and fun and jollity and some vulgarity in Pickwick. There is a good deal of eating and far too much drinking. But when the fun is rather rough, we must remember that Dickens wrote of the England of seventy years ago and more, when life was rougher than it is now, and when people did not see that drinking was the sordid sin we know it to be now.
To many people Pickwick remains Dickens's best book. "The glory of Charles Dickens," it has been said, "will always be in his Pickwick, his first, his best, his inimitable triumph."
Just when Dickens began to write Pickwick he married, and soon we find him comfortably settled in a London house, while the other great writers of his day gathered round him as his friends.
Although not born in London, Dickens was a true Londoner, and when his work was done he loved nothing better than to roam the streets. He was a great walker, and thought nothing of going twenty or thirty miles a day, for though he was small and slight he had quite recovered from his childish sickliness and was full of wiry energy. The crowded streets of London were his books. As he wandered through them his clear blue eyes took note of everything, and when he was far away, among the lovely sights of Italy or Switzerland, he was homesick for the grimy streets and hurrying crowds of London.
After Pickwick many other stories followed; in them Dickens showed his power not only of making people laugh, but of making them cry. For the source of laughter and the source of tears are not very far apart. There is scarcely another writer whose pathetic scenes are so famous as those of Dickens.
In life there is a great deal that is sad, and one of the things
which touched Dickens most deeply was the misery of children.
The children of
Dickens loved children and they loved him, for he had a most winning way with them and he understood their little joys and sorrows. "There are so many people," says his daughter writing about her father, "There are so many people good, kind, and affectionate, but who can not remember that they once were children themselves, and looked out upon the world with a child's eyes only." This Dickens did always remember, and it made him a tender and delightful father to whom his children looked up with something of adoration. "Ever since I can remember anything," says his daughter, "I remember him as the good genius of the house, or as its happy, bright and funny genius." As Thackeray had a special handwriting for each daughter, Dickens had a special voice for each child, so that without being named each knew when he or she was spoken to. He sang funny songs to them and told funny stories, did conjuring tricks and got up theatricals, shared their fun and comforted their sorrows. And this same power of understanding which made him enter into the joys and sorrows of his children, made him enter into the joys and sorrows of the big world around him. So that the people of that big world loved him as a friend, and adored him as a hero.
As the years went on Dickens wrote more and more books. He started a magazine too, first called Household Words and later All the Year Round. In this, some of his own works came out as well as the works of other writers. It added greatly to his popularity and not a little to his wealth. And as he became rich and famous, his boyish dream came true. He bought the house of Gad's Hill which had seemed so splendid and so far off in his childish eyes, and went to live there with his big family of growing boys and girls.
It was about this time, too, that Dickens found a new way of entertaining the world. He not only wrote books but he himself read them to great audiences. All his life Dickens had loved acting. Indeed he very nearly became an actor before he found out his great powers of writing. He many times took part in private theatricals, one of his favorite parts, you will like to know, being Captain Bobadil, in Jonson's Every Man in his Humour. And now all the actor in him delighted in the reading of his own works, so although many of his friends were very much against these readings, he went on with them. And wherever he read in England, Scotland, Ireland, and America, crowds flocked to hear him. Dickens swayed his audiences at will. He made them laugh, and cry, and whether they laughed or whether they cried they cheered and applauded him. It was a triumph and an evidence of his power in which Dickens delighted and which he could not forego, although his friends thought it was beneath his dignity as an author.
But the strain and excitement were too much. These
broke down Dickens's health and wore him out. He was at last
forced to give them up, but it was already too late. A few
months later he died suddenly one evening in
I have not given you a list of Dicken's books because they are to be found in nearly every household. You will soon be able to read them and learn to know the characters whose names have become household words.
Dickens was the novelist of the poor, the shabby genteel, and the lower middle class. It has been said many times that in all his novels he never drew for us a single gentleman, and that is very nearly true. But we need little regret that, for he has left us a rich array of characters we might never otherwise have known, such as perhaps no other man could have pictured for us.
Books To Read
Stories from Dickens,
The Children's Dickens.